“Look at it,” said Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA. “The city is right there.”
That it was. From the huge upper-floor window of the Lenfest Center for the Arts—the latest component of the new Columbia University campus in New York’s Manhattanville neighborhood—invited media and a smatter of prominent guests gazed out onto a sweeping view of upper Broadway, with Riverside Church and the dome of Grant’s Tomb in the distance. It was a dramatic background for last week’s preview event: After a nearly decade-long struggle, the school and its president, Lee Bollinger, are finally seeing results of their ambitious, $6.3-billion expansion scheme.
The plan—devised by Paris- and Genoa, Italy–based Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) and the New York office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill—encompasses 17 acres on the banks of the Hudson River, and already one chunk of the multi-building complex is in use: the Jerome L. Green Science Center, a 450,000-square foot research and laboratory facility, designed by RPBW with David Brody Bond serving as executive architect. Construction on the center completed late last year, and though it is already in use, it’s official opening is not scheduled to be held until May.
But the arts center—also designed by RPBW with Davis Brody Bond, and also scheduled to open in May—represents an important step. Aside from being a space “to showcase the fabulous students and artists” in the program, says School of the Arts dean Carol Becker, the Lenfest Center will also be a meeting ground, a hub for exhibitions and programs that draw in visitors and participants from the surrounding Harlem community. With a flexible presentation venue, film theater, offices, and multiple gallery spaces, the eight-floor building is intended as a cultural anchor, giving the private campus a friendlier public face.
From the outside at least, Piano’s design isn’t notably civic in character, a blank-faced glass-and-steel ensemble in much the same vocabulary as his new Whitney Museum downtown. But then Manhattanville, a longtime manufacturing district, is not an inappropriate setting for such a tough, industrial aesthetic. Certainly the new building seemed to meet with the approval of the assembled worthies who came to catch a sneak peek at Lenfest, all of whom gazing admiringly at the gleaming new facility in the middle of the rough old neighborhood.
For more images and information on the Lenfest Center for the Arts, visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery
For more images and information on the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.